- 1 Lack clarity and intelligibility, warrant explanation (“Ténébreux,” Le Trésor de la Langue Français (...)
1Being between languages and literary traditions is a strange thing. Neither is home anymore, both are foreign and defamiliarised, rich and curious. Alexandre Vialatte’s mysteriously titled 1928 novel Battling le ténébreux embraces one such in-between space. Representative of the novel, the title is unclear : it seems foreign, from any language, it is ambiguous and evocative, multiple and non-definitive. What or who is “battling ?” Those who know a little bit about the novel will recognise the protagonist Battling and see that he is le ténébreux. But the destabilisation of the language switch and the strangeness of the word in French conceals the first name that would signal the classic epithetic title : Jude the Obscure, for example, Thomas l’imposteur. Even knowing the character’s name, we wonder what it means and why the author chose it. Perhaps Vialatte took a liking to Buster Keaton’s film Battling Butler released a couple of years earlier, or perhaps the term comes from the old German batte meaning “to bat”, or batteln, “to battle.” Coming from the English, the gerund “battling” favours a verbal phrase : a struggle for or against something dark, mysterious, evil, even beautiful. But the text rarely draws from English. “Ténébreux” too is uncertain ; is Battling the dark one or the romantic beau ténébreux ? In fact, given the wealth of possible interpretations, ténébreux – “qui manque de clarté, d’intelligibilité, qui mériterait des éclaircissements1”– almost seems to mark the title’s own wilful obscurity. It follows then that behind these questions about what the title means, looms a bigger, potentially more interesting, question : why doesn’t Vialatte say what he means more clearly ? Or, more helpfully, why can’t he ?
2Through this text, I aim to explore the role of foreignness in conveying the type of elusive meaning, both profound and necessarily difficult, that we seek from art and literature. Beginning with the clash of languages in the title, Battling le ténébreux embraces a space between languages, literary traditions, realities and other texts, where all is Other. Perhaps better known for his translations of Kafka than for his fiction, Vialatte wrote Battling upon his return to France after working in Germany as a German to French translator and a writer for the French-German magazine La Revue Rhénane. In Battling, he writes a world between French and German literary traditions, not fitting neatly into either, but following in the wake of both La modernité and the Romantik, and drawing from an eclectic array of intertexts. The main characters are foreigners and outsiders themselves, or fascinated by the foreign, and rather than grow up or endeavour to understand their world, they express the confusion that they live through a foreign or otherworldly art. Starting with the obscure title Battling le ténébreux, and tracing it across languages and literatures, I follow the post-romantic hero in his quest for meaning and, in a mise en abyme, Vialatte’s own modernist quest. Both turn to a strange art that offers the only source of truth, however fleeting, in a foreign world.
- 2 The way he looked both heavy and soft like a peaceful brute. Vialatte, Alexandre. Battling Le Ténéb (...)
4Taking a step back, who is Battling ? The protagonist, Fernand Larache, goes by the nickname Battling. Apparently, his classmates chose it for “son allure souple et lourde à la fois de brute paisible2,” for his savagery and his tenderness. This elusive and oxymoronic explanation – soft and heavy, brutish and peaceful – exemplifies the conflicted nature of Battling’s character, and the ambiguous nature of Vialatte’s description. Battling is a tormented sort ; he has a miserable childhood, lacking love and abused by his father.
- 3 Lemon and Reis, Russian Formalist Criticism. (Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 12.
- 4 Ibid., 3-24.
- 5 Wismann, Penser Entre Les Langues / Heinz Wismann. (Paris : Albin Michel, 2012), 312.
5The name “battling” marks him as an outsider, and marks the text’s encounter with the foreign. The strangeness of the name defamiliarises the language of the title. If Vialatte had nicknamed his protagonist with an equivalent French verb – combattre perhaps, or combattant – the effect would be very different. Ignoring any semantic differences between these terms, the language switch itself disorients our reading of the parole. The Russian formalist Shklovsky said that “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life3” and he posits the strangeness of poetic language as that which enables us to perceive the world anew. It is by twisting language – departing from the everyday, turning to nonsense, neologisms, unusual colocations, poetry – that we arrive at that threshold of the legible that is art4. For art says what we cannot ; if it were easy to describe a painting or a text, then we would no longer need the painting or the text5. In the title, without the usual cultural and literary context that gives each term its more rapid, automatic meaning, one must work to understand and slow down to speculate. Moreover, the sounds of the terms “battling” and “le ténébreux” collide rather than flow so that one lingers on form.
- 6 Lemon and Reis, Russian Formalist Criticism, 3-24.
6 For Shklovsky, and as he quotes, for Aristotle, a foreign language is often behind the strange wonder of art6. For what is foreignness but strangeness ? Foreignness is that which does not belong, which comes from elsewhere or outside, and as such it often appears strange, thus acting as a welcome barrier to automatic or instinctive understanding. Many writers, particularly modernists, spoke similarly of the effect of a foreign language. Virginia Woolf, referring to Maupassant, said :
- 7 Woolf, Virginia. “Phases of Fiction," The Bookman (New York: April 1929), 126.
Not from any merit of his own, he gives us that little fillip which we get from reading a language whose edges have not been smoothed for us by daily use. The very sentences shape themselves in a way that is definitely charming. The words tingle and sparkle. As for English, alas, it is our language – shop-worn, not so desirable, perhaps.7
- 8 Beautiful books are written in a sort of foreign language. Proust, Marcel. Contre Saint-Beuve. (La (...)
7Proust also famously championed a foreignness of language, if not an actual foreign language, saying that “les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère8.” The destabilising effect in Battling le ténébreux reinstates the terms with that richness that disappears once language is worn and habitual. Against the foreignness of “battling,” even the French is less obvious and more questionable, or less readable and more profound. The automatic epithetic reading is crowded by other lines of interpretation and by the possibilities of “ténébreux,” with its darkness, obscurity, beauty, and evilness. The foreignness of the title, if only because we read it as Other, highlights the multitude of readings associated with each signifier, and points to a rich ambiguity.
8I want to diverge, then, to consider Battling through the intertextual “ténébreux.” Tracing this term through texts and languages reveals the many layers that jostle behind, and obscure, this unreadable title. In the epithetic sense of Battling as “le ténébreux,” the TLFI gives two relevant definitions, both of which come from famous texts. This first is from the fourteenth century chivalric romance Amadis de Gaula :
- 9 Young man looking to seduce women with a taciturn or melancholic disposition much loved by the Roma (...)
Jeune homme cherchant à séduire les femmes par un comportement taciturne ou mélancolique cher aux romantiques. En partic., p. plaisant. Beau ténébreux. [P. réf. au récit chevaleresque d’Amadis de Gaule qui se retira dans la solitude par dépit amoureux]9.
9Amadis de Gaula is the story of brave knights and beautiful damsels. Amadis is a mysterious knight who cries over his love Oriana and calls himself Beltenebros in a time of suffering and madness. The Spanish ‘Beltenebros’ slides smoothly into the French “beau ténébreux” so that this character, fierce in battle, but sensitive in love, brings into being the “beau ténébreux” as the archetype of the romantic hero in French literature. So is Battling the chivalrous hero of old ?
10The second relevant part of this TLFI definition for ténébreux comes from Gérard de Nerval’s celebrated poem El desdichado :
- 10 Dark and melancholy man. “I am the darkness – the widower – the un-consoled, The prince of Aquitain (...)
- 11 TLFI definition.
Homme à l’air sombre et mélancolique. Je suis le ténébreux, — le veuf — l’inconsolé, Le prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie »10 (Nerval, Chimères, 1854, p. 693)11.
11This conjures a deep and dark image that is less a romantic hero and more a condemned, tortured soul, or even the devil rising from the ténèbres. The story goes that Nerval took the title from the mysterious knight in Walter Scott’s nostalgic 1820 classic Ivanhoe : A Romance. Ivanhoe wears a shield emblazoned with the words El desdichado, translated rather liberally by Scott as “the disinherited.” Nerval attaches himself to the chivalric tradition through this link to Scott and, like Scott, keeps the Spanish, rather than entitling his poem “the disinherited” or “le déshérité.” The associations that come with the Spanish culture’s strong tradition of chivalry render “desdichado” richer than a French or English equivalent, more exotic and evocative. In the unfamiliarity of the Spanish, the semantics fade behind the more general associations of the language but, on closer inspection, and delving into the literal meaning of the Spanish, the ténébreux of the poem becomes unfortunate and unhappy, as well as disowned.
- 12 Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. (London : Chatto and Windus, 1956), 236.
12 Following the intertextuality of the title situates the text in the tradition of tilting at windmills, fighting illusions, darkness and melancholy. These layers from different texts, times, voices and languages co-exist rather than oppose to give that beautiful ambiguity that, according to Empson, comes from “the more interesting and valuable situations12.” Within Battling the character and Battling the text, the sincerity of Amadis de Gaula and of Spanish chivalry compete with the scepticism and nostalgia for Romanticism that came later. One could even read the title as a metafictional commentary on the text’s identity crisis ; disinherited, Battling le ténébreux contains a struggle against worn-out archetypes and old-fashioned tradition while lamenting its own anachronism. The novel’s subtitle “ou la mue périlleuse” – whose meaning could also be discussed in great detail – refers most directly to Battling’s perilous coming of age, but could also add to a reading of this title as a literary coming of age : the shedding of old tradition and the forming of a new textual identity from the remains.
- 13 I know him, my Battling; beneath his guise of a disdainful realist, he would suffer terribly. Viala (...)
- 14 And yet, beneath this general disdain for emotion, lyricism, fiction and women, lay a great sinceri (...)
13In terms of the protagonist, through the intertextual history of this hero, we read Battling as the brave knight who, in the psychologically complex world of French literature in the nineteen-twenties, struggles with the internal and elusive demons of uncertainty and lack of identity. He is both the chivalrous hero, or the anti-hero, and the condemned soul, wallowing in the depths of hell. More than just savage and tender, Battling struggles with this torturous tension of apparent opposites. He embodies both the romantic and the cynic – “je le connais, mon Battling ; avec ses airs de réaliste méprisant, il en souffrirait horriblement13,” – the without affectation and the utter pretence, the disdainful and the sincere – “et cependant, sous ce mépris général du sentiment, du lyrisme, du romanesque et des femmes, il cachait la plus grande candeur14,” – the full of life and, ultimately, the lifeless. This intertextual reading does not resolve the multiplicity of interpretations and voices, none of them singular or definitive, but rather shows us they are there, piled atop one another through a language that does not wish to be contained.
14As a confused and wretched teenager, Battling obsesses over a mysterious German sculptress Erna Schnorr who moves to the small town and catches the attention of the villagers. Erna is a German sculptress who is depicted exotically as a pale Scandinavian vision rising from a red house in the snow. The epitome of the Other, Erna represents the concurrent wonder and impenetrability of all that is foreign. In her intellect and eccentric sophistication, she wants only to fit in with the town’s bourgeoisie, but never ceases to stand out, to fascinate and repulse. The villagers consider Erna ugly, but in such a foreign way that at times she seems instead an extraordinary beauty. Influenced by a poetic light, Manuel muses :
- 15 The ugliness, or rather the foreignness of the Berliner’s face, had completely disappeared; and wha (...)
La laideur, ou plutôt l’étrangeté du visage de la Berlinoise, avait complètement disparu ; et puis était-elle vraiment laide ? Dans la lumière confuse que répandait le père Ubu, elle apparaissait mystérieuse, douce, luxueuse et parfaite ; Manuel songeait à l’Invitation de Baudelaire15.
- 16 O Erna, standing atop the wall covered by Virginia creeper, at the four o’clock break, just like, i (...)
15Just as a foreignness of language is only unreadable on the surface, Erna only appears ugly if one does not delve into the foreignness of her features. While her otherness is difficult to understand, the text suggests that Erna offers a glimpse of something luxurious, poetic, and brilliant : a gateway to another world. The schoolboys, who wish to escape from the banality and repetition of the everyday, of the French bourgeoisie, and of black and white answers, see her equally as a figure of hope : “Ô Erna, debout sur le mur de vigne vierge, à la récreation de quatre heures, pareille, dans le ciel limpide, à la figure de proue de notre espoir…16”
- 17 Takes all sorts to make a world… The Germans, you know, my poor thing, deep down, they’re just like (...)
- 18 Vialatte, Battling, pp. 152-154.
16 While Vialatte sometimes exoticises foreignness, he also portrays a complex relationship between self and Other that includes a fear of difference, a want of escape, and an ironic recognition of sameness. When Erna passes by some local gossipers, for example, they whisper : “Faut bien de tout pour faire un monde… les Allemands, vois-tu, ma pauvre, au fond, c’est du monde comme nous17.” The villagers understand Germans to be like themselves, but merely at home elsewhere. The foreign is only strange and unfamiliar when it is out of place, and shown to us as the Other. Erna’s speech is occasionally peppered with German – for example, “Gott sei Dank !” “Oder wie er heist” – or written in accented French, for example, “Ouniversal genie18.” The German words have a new significance, above and beyond their semantics or referential capacity, when inserted in the French language. The words themselves have not changed, but we see their strange edges and angles only when they do not belong : the German in the French, the French next to the German. While not important phrases in themselves, such instances label her as foreign and destabilise a smooth reading. Due to the unfamiliar nature of the language, one either notes only the Germanness and the strangeness, without the semantics, or one ponders the language more closely in order to understand. The throw-away line “oder wie er heist,“ for example, “or whatever he’s called,” takes on a slightly metafictional significance, highlighting the opacity of language, when we see Erna’s words concealed from the reader.
- 19 […] a perilous edge of art, a wondrous balance between the real and the impossible. The elegance of (...)
17 While Erna seeks to shed her foreignness, and assimilate into small-town life, her art resists conventions and categorisation. Failing to fit in or to understand the French bourgeoisie, she creates artworks that depict her otherness and that straddle a border between the real and the impossible, glimmering in their foreignness and obscurity. Her work is “[…] une limite périlleuse de l’art, un prodige d’équilibre entre le réel et l’impossible. L’élégance de son dessin et l’étrangeté de ses éclairages surprenaient comme un conte norvégien ; ses visions semblaient venir d’un autre monde ; elle s’était inventé une planète et l’exploitait pour son plaisir19.” Neither the villagers nor the artistic elite fully understand it, but attempt to describe and confine it nonetheless. Members of various art movements – stamped with buzzwords of the time such as “l’Episodisme Transcendantal” and “la Sécession Episodique” – try to encapsulate Erna’s work with words but fail :
- 20 The eloquent experts of spoken painting discussed idealist constructivism, pure psyche, plastic sta (...)
Les spécialistes éloquents de la peinture parlée discutèrent du constructivisme idéaliste, du psychisme pur, des états plastiques et des vertiges chromatiques de l’interstellarisme anecdotique dans les abreuvoirs les plus fringants. Ce furent de grands jours pour la Couleur. Erna cependant, sans s’inquiéter des substantifs plus ou moins exhaustifs mis en circulation par sa peinture, avait poursuivi son travail20.
18The passage’s hollow jargon and convoluted phrasing mock any attempts to use ordinary language to describe what is necessarily beyond it. Through Erna’s character and her art, the text associates the foreign with a sense, if not a knowledge, of the extraordinary.
- 21 Kern, Stephen. The Modernist Novel. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 41-42.
- 22 Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1938), 160.
19Both the text and its characters fight their battles for meaning with a foreign and conflicted art. Following the Romantic purposiveness of art by way of the Künstlerroman, in vogue with the modernists21, the characters do not endeavour to comprehend the strangeness that surrounds them but surrender to it with an art that negotiates their own, individual darkness. By embracing the lack of any absolute meaning, one is free to acknowledge and portray the strangeness of this world that will always be foreign to oneself. It is only then that, in Virginia Woolf’s words, one can hope to “convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display22.”
- 23 The poem continues : “porte le soleil noir de la Mélancolie.” ‘Poème El Desdichado - Gérard de Nerv (...)
- 24 Nerval, Lemaître, and Nerval, Les Filles Du Feu [Electronic Resource].
20Like Erna, Battling puts his suffering, his confusion, and his disenchantment with the real world into an alternative fictional world called the rue des Merveilles, complete with translated poetry and exotic symbolism. Going back to the association with Nerval’s ténébreux, Battling, handsome and saturnine, also wears the “black sun of melancholy23” and is on the verge of creative madness. Nerval himself considered his art not a game but a “vertige24” and, favouring imagination over reason, depicted the wondrous edge of reality that he lived with his poetry. Labelling himself the last emperor of the Romantics, Nerval, in the tradition of Don Quixote’s chimères, held on to a nostalgia for fantastical enemies and old-fashioned adventure, for fiction, however strange and impossible, at least offers tangible enemies to fight. Similarly, Battling’s rue des merveilles, while not meant to be understood, nevertheless offers a materiality in the darkness and a fictional space of escape.
- 25 Ode to ugliness. Vialatte, Battling, 77-81.
21 The text does not offer a clear-cut vision of this “unreadable” rue des merveilles, but rather describes it with fragmented imagery and a collage of foreign intertexts. Much of what we know of this other world comes from a poem that Battling writes to Erna and that he sets in the rue des merveilles, entitled Hymne à la laideur25. While we do not see the poem ourselves, Battling’s friend Manuel describes it as a stomach-churning creation along the lines of Rimbaud’s Bateau ivre, but with the beauty and bizarreness that accompanies the translation of the work of a foreign poet, Whitman perhaps :
- 26 ‘It was beautiful, in my opinion,’ replied Manuel with the tone he assumed when he spoke of things (...)
A mon avis, c’était très beau, me répondit Manuel avec la voix qu’il prenait quand il parlait de choses auxquelles il attachait de l’importance. C’était intitulé Hymne à la Laideur. Ça se passait dans une espèce d’endroit miraculeux et mal défini qu’il appelait la rue des Merveilles, avec des marchands plus ou moins turcs qui tenaient des discours à la Whitmann. Bizarre. On aurait dit une traduction d’un poète étranger. Et puis une espèce de grandiose, et un écoeurement, comme dans certaines choses de Rimbaud, les plus âcres… entrelardé de nietzschéismes acides26.
22This other world sits on the edge of the extraordinary, on the edge of a dark, confusing, disturbing place, but also on the edge of language : a foreign, poetic brilliance. The intertextual description of the rue des merveilles gives it a hazy and open quality : a piecemeal job of translated Whitman, of the pitching and plunging French of Rimbaud’s Bateau ivre, and of Nietzsche’s complex German.
23I posit this intertextual place as a fictional elsewhere which, filled with others’ voices and foreign languages, offers an unstable literary meaning that is full of possibilities. As with the title, one must follow the intertextual trails to render it readable, but these complicate, as well as elucidate. Since it is precisely the Otherness that sustains meaning, the fictional elsewhere is not reachable, only perceivable.
- 27 Dupee, F. W. "Flaubert and the Sentimental Education," The New York Review of Books (New York: Apri (...)
- 28 My dear Larache, you are really not cut out to understand the Romantic despair. Vialatte, Battling, (...)
24The text presents a not-reachable not-understanding as the only truth. In a sort of anti-bildungsroman in the tradition of L’Éducation sentimentale27, the more Battling grows, the more things seem obscure and the more he is estranged. In his “mue périlleuse,” rather than learning the ways of the world, he sees the illusion that his teachers live, and he finds a truth in contradiction and ambiguity, in the extraordinary and in the depths of darkness. The art of the text, including the adult work of Erna that arises from a “spontanéité enfantine” and satisfies the dreams of children, is that of youth. The characters depict a confusion that has not yet been conquered by the learned ordinariness of age. The adults, particularly the teachers, close their eyes to the grey and see only black and white. For all Battling’s lyricism and real-life Romantic despair, they misread his complications for failings, thinking him a hopeless student : “mon pauvre Larache, vous n’êtes vraiment pas fait pour comprendre le désespoir romantique28.” Likewise, they warn their children away from the startling brilliance of Erna Schnorr, and label Manuel’s raw and youthful caricatures obscene rather than artistic.
25Rather than a simple understanding, Battling’s youthful battle for meaning, unrestrained by rules and the institution, does not hold on to hope for any singular or definitive answers, but welcomes the complex darkness of not-knowing. The inescapable foreignness that is the text’s space of art, fiction, knowledge and suffering serves as a tangible gateway to the uncertainty. It offers a meaning full of greys, a sort of “beautiful obscurity” with which one can confront the melancholy – a haziness to light up the darkness.
26In the end, Battling surrenders the battle. When Erna takes up with his classmate Manuel, an easy-going, man-of-the-world type, Battling falls into a deep despair and the text culminates in his suicide. It is only here that he can truly know the extraordinary, drifting in the breeze to his rue des merveilles, finally to join the Other. One is left wondering then whether the danger of the text’s “mue périlleuse” is that one might grow up to lose this complex vision of truth that is not-understanding, or that one might be caught in its strange darkness, and choose not to go on.
27While we have moved on from the modernist concerns with which Vialatte grapples in Battling, we continue to turn to literature, and to art, to depict that which we do not quite understand and that which we cannot say more simply. I argue that the foreignness in Battling le ténébreux is not an unnecessary complication but a depiction and exploration of the complexity that Vialatte and his characters live. In a mise en abyme, like the strange art of the characters who strive in a post-romantic battle to depict their melancholia and uncertainty, the art of the text conceives its rich not-understanding through a fragmented narrative written between languages and literary traditions. Neither the title, with its ambiguous intertextuality, nor Erna’s art, nor Battling’s rue des merveilles, could be described more ordinarily or more legibly. By crossing worlds and ways of making meaning, by using and subverting different traditions, by not translating but inhabiting the multiple, this text endeavours to depict that “uncircumscribed spirit” with its true depth and complexity.